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Clay Aiken Idolizes Kids With Developmental Disabilities

By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Clay Aiken became a national sensation on the hit show American Idol. But while music may be his bread and butter for now, Aiken's real passion is giving a voice to children with developmental disabilities.

"I fell in love with working with the kids," says Aiken, whose national tour in support of his #1 album begins February 24 in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Kids with autism and developmental disabilities think differently, their view of the world is much more pure and innocent."

Aiken began working with kids at the YMCA and then a local elementary school where he was asked to substitute-teach a class. Only after he accepted the position, did Aiken find out his students were autistic.

"I also worked with an agency called Autism Services who placed me with the Bubel family in the Charlotte area," Aiken says. "They are such an inspiration to me. I bonded very closely with their son Mike who has autism and the whole family. I liked that they didn't make excuses for Mike. They didn't expect him to get special treatment but simply to be included like a normal citizen."

"As I became more involved teaching, I saw children with developmental disabilities being turned away from inclusion in programs and so my dream became to fix this in some small way," Aiken adds. "There are so many kids and families that need our support."

According to Best Buddies International, nearly eight million Americans have intellectual disabilities, formerly termed mental retardation. But the number of individuals with developmental disabilities is much greater and has been estimated as high as 10 million.

"Developmental disability is an umbrella term that usually implies that a person has some adaptive challenges - cognitive and/or physical disabilities -- and has difficulty managing his or her tasks of daily living," explains Wendy Wood, associate professor of special education, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Wood points out that people with developmental disabilities are not simply or automatically mentally retarded.

"Individuals with intellectual disabilities are typically identified by IQ measures," says Wood, who acted as Aiken's independent study supervisor. "But a person with cerebral palsy might have a normal or even above average IQ yet still may have issues related to performing tasks of daily living. This person would still be considered developmentally disabled."

Developmental disabilities include:

  • Autism
  • Down syndrome
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Birth defects
  • Other neurological or cognitive impairments

Real American idol

Diane Bubel, Mike's mother, recognizes that Aiken's work with children with autism isn't easy and says it demands "patience and true respect for these children as people first."

"Mike's autism is severe so one of his biggest challenges is communication," Bubel says. "He cannot speak and he can't always process what is said to him. You can't just tell things like 'put your shoes on' - so it can be very difficult. But once you have a child with a disability you have a choice - you can suffer with it or you can choose the happy road. We chose the latter."

They also chose Aiken to work with Mike. Bubel knew very quickly Aiken had the right stuff - both as a teacher and a singer.

"Clayton walked in the door with unconditional love and no expectations," Bubel says. "It's rare to find people that open and understanding. And pretty soon we realized what an incredible voice he had and just kept telling him to audition for American Idol."

"Eventually I had to audition or she wasn't going to leave me alone," Aiken jokes. "And the rest, well it worked out pretty well."

Far better than Aiken ever dreamed.

Not only did he become a star almost overnight, but he believes his American Idol success now allows him to fulfill his true vocation.

"I was already studying special education at UNC but then American Idol took me away from my student teaching and I wasn't going to be able to graduate," Aiken explains. "I had to find another way to get enough credits to graduate. So we figured out an independent study about non-profits and special education. My assignment was to create a mock foundation that would work with kids with special needs."

Aiken completed the needed course credits and graduated. After the show his career really took off and he saw an opportunity to make his dream a reality.

'Teach the children well'

"After the show it began to look more and more like I really could create a foundation that helps kids with developmental disabilities," says Aiken, who will appear on NBC's Ed this Friday January 23. "Not just in the Raleigh area but to help kids nationally and internationally."

When Aiken told Bubel he was naming the organization the Bubel Aiken Foundation, she couldn't believe it and was moved to tears.

"We want the message of the foundation to be inclusion - we want to 'open doors and open minds,'" Bubel states. "We want people to get to know our children and understand that by knowing them they will be better people. It's true in our family. My daughter Emma is more patient, wise, understanding and less self indulgent than most kids her age because of Mike."

Inclusion is multi-layered in its impact, positively affecting the child's education, socialization and emotional well-being.

"If a child with a disability is included with children who are not, it's not just a social benefit," Aiken states. "It has a self esteem and emotional benefit to be treated like other students. 'Handicapped' is a label society puts on people. It's not something kids are born with. A child may have a disability but the handicap comes from society when they tell that child they can't do something."

Aiken says the goal is to instead figure out how they can do that activity - to include them in programs.

"Inclusion also helps kids academically and they start to pick up on socially correct behaviors," Aiken explains. "And the benefit is two-way. Kids without disabilities learn so much - possibly more. Instead of just seeing a kid with disabilities down the hall in a classroom, they get to learn about them. Ignorance leads to prejudice. Inclusion provides them an opportunity to learn compassion, acceptance and tolerance - all skills which make our society better."

Aiken hopes he will be at his best when his tour begins but says he has a 'higher purpose.'

"I am in a position now to be a voice for people with developmental disabilities," Aiken says. "I think all of us have a higher purpose for what we are doing. The visible higher purpose for celebrity is to create awareness for issues that need a voice. I'm just doing what I always planned on doing - teaching and helping children with developmental disabilities."

For more information about The Bubel Aiken Foundation, click here.

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 1/24/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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